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Episcopalians and the myth of the fifth

Episcopalians and the myth of the fifth

Susan Snook reflects on addiction and the church.

Like you, I have wished we could go back in time to 2010, when there was still time for Heather Cook to deal with her addiction. And possibly like you, I am completely unqualified to know what the church should have done, because I don’t have that much experience with addiction, beyond the basics I’ve picked up as a parish priest.

And yet, perhaps like you, I am the leader of a congregation, and perhaps like you, I may one day have an addicted employee, and will need to know what to do about it. So, as naïve and uninformed as I am, I realized that I needed to find out more – not about the Heather Cook situation, which I am not qualified to judge – but about our church system, and about how we should be dealing with people with addictions who can cause great harm to themselves and others, and to our church….

…So, let’s say you are the supervisor (bishop, rector, lay supervisor, etc.) of a bright, talented, enthusiastic employee who has great potential. But you suspect that the employee has an addiction problem – with alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, or any of a number of other addictions. What should you do about it?

I interviewed the Rev. John Christopher, a priest in the Diocese of Arizona who has been in recovery for many years, and who will soon become the diocesan recovery officer. I also interviewed a couple of others who prefer not to be named here, and I’ve used their insights as background information. I learned a lot from these conversations. Read on if you’re interested.

Read the rest here.

Posted by Andrew Gerns


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Scott Larsen

There is great irony here. First, in many Episcopal/Anglican parishes across North America are various 12-Step programs. Second, substance abuse pertaining to alcohol use has been widely known in parish after parish, diocese after diocese, long before this tragic and unfortunate case involving Heather Cook. The larger question is if the institution that is the Episcopal Church in the United States will take serious steps to address this issue before another – God forbid – incident like this happens involving a clergy member.

Jim Frodge

All of the comments discussing various treatment options are well reasoned and thoughtful. However they miss the point of Ms. Snook’s article which is what does an organization, in this case the church, do when confronted with the possibility of clergy dealing with addiction.

I think the article’s suggestion of “tough love” is most appropriate. The addicted person must be told “treatment or termination”. The church cannot fix the problem but it must hold the addicted person accountable and take whatever steps needed to get the person to seek help. Should the person fail to seek help the church must then terminate that person.

As a church we are perhaps a bit “too polite” and as a result we hesitate to take a tough love position, even when that position is most appropriate.

In the case of Heather Cook we should believe that something went wrong as Bishop Sutton has stated. However we are unlikely to find out what went wrong since as far as I know nobody is asking that question. I am only aware of a Title IV action against Heather Cook and that is due to her “dishonesty” regarding her DUI in Easton. I am unaware of any investigation into what went wrong along the way although if I am wrong about this, and I hope that I am, somebody please feel free to correct me.

Philip B. Spivey

Jim: If, as I believe, Heather Cook is grabbed from the jaws of hell by our Lord, Jesus, she will in time provide the most truthful and accurate back story of “what went wrong and when”. If, as I believe, Heather throws herself into recovery with commitment and passion, she will emerge on the other side with wisdom and humility enough to share her journey into hell; less seeking our forgiveness; more seeking to make amends.

Susan Snook’s fundamental question must be answered if we are going to build healthier Episcopalians in the future: “What do I do if I see someone in (alcohol) trouble?” As Christians, we are not so far from knowing how to answer that question when it concerns a broken leg, heart attack or poverty. The answer here is simply to “get help”. Drinking (or other drug problems) are no different except that often, we are mystified by the symptoms of chemical intoxication and haven’t been taught what we should do. We don’t have to be diagnosticians and diagnose “an addiction”; all we need to do is acknowledge that the person is in some kind of distress and (a) inquire with the individual or (b) ask for help from someone in the position to provide it.

What’s unfortunate in our church is that we are so inured to the distress signs of problem drinking that we barely give it a second thought unless the consequences of that drinking are dramatic and public.

I hope our church is now prepared to widely and comprehensively educate lay and clergy to the signs and symptoms of a person with a drinking problem and—to offer confidential help and assistance to those who voluntarily seek it and to those who have been motivated to seek assistance by a swift-kick of tough love.

BTW: My anecdotal experience in the past 30 years treating chemical, and other kinds of addictions, suggests many— not one—treatments fit all. The 12-step programs provide an outstanding source of community with guidance about how to live better and with more satisfaction in community; at the same time, it provides a vessel in which to find deeper spiritual meaning in their lives; some have likened the fellowship to their “second church”. In addition to a 12-step group, folks in recovery benefit from ongoing psychotherapy; disciplined, regular physical activity of some kind; a regular spiritual practice; good nutrition; adequate sleep; and a generous rasher of play time.

The irony, of course, is that these are the same things that we all want and need: balance; piece of mind; serenity. With certainty, Heather Cook must be seeking them now. I hope she receives adequate help in her new journey.

June Butler

Jim, many people have asked questions about what went wrong in the process that allowed Heather Cook to become a candidate and then elected bishop in Maryland, but there have been few answers from those involved in the process.

JC Fisher

“We may have a cultural issue as much as a structural issue. Our reputation as hard-drinking folks in many cases is well-earned, and it doesn’t make things easy for addicts who are trying to stay sober. We should all be evaluating whether using or serving alcohol at church events is appropriate, and what kind of jokes we should be telling about ourselves. If our jokes reinforce a self-image that could be destructive, maybe it’s time to stop telling them.”

This is a thorny issue. We follow a Lord of whom it was accused “he associates with publicans and drunkards!”. The fact that the Episcopal Church is known for NOT moralizing (as opposed to Practicing Morals) is one of our glories, IMO (up there w/ “Scripture, Tradition and Reason” and “the Via Media”).

…and yet we don’t want to turn a blind-eye to *destructive* behavior, either (esp when the behavior in question may be more than merely self-destructive: drinking PLUS driving).

Moreover, there’s the notion that “Angels Can Fly Because They Take Themselves Lightly”: we don’t want to stop being a Church that can be silly about itself (as the “4 = Fifth” joke conveys).

I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I can sense a pendulum swinging—sensibly enough. But to catch it before it Over-Swings? Aye, there’s the rub…

Christopher Donald

Here is a link to one article that cites a variety of studies. What I have not seen is a study that is directly comparing cbt and aa like a randomized clinical trial. The last citation there is from BMJ which roughly concluded that three different approaches/modalities work equally well. Perhaps the issue is not which to pick, (pick anyone… ) or perhaps there is something to be learned in looking at a combination of approaches.

June Butler

Donald, thank you. The article at your link was quite informative. Strong motivation to get better seems to be a good predictor of long-term success. We still have a lot to learn.

June Butler

I left a comment at Susan Snook’s blog, but it never appeared. A psychologist named Harry Merryman left a comment there suggesting behavior therapy might work better than AA and/or 12-step programs and rehab and that “abstinence is not always achievable or necessary”. I responded to Harry with the following:

Harry Merryman, AA and 12-step programs seem to work for some who have problems with substance abuse; rehab seems to work for others; and behavioral therapy works for yet others. Are there good comparative studies for success rates for the three approaches to treatment for substance abuse?

Harry M. Merryman

June: I agree with your point about different people responding to different treatments.

In answer to your specific question, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA, part of the National Institutes of Health) reports the following:

“. . . scientists are examining whether certain patient characteristics predict better responses to different approaches. Although no such patterns have yet emerged from research, core components of effective therapies have been identified that may prove useful in helping a care provider decide which treatment is best for a particular person. These components include enhancing social support, working with the patient to develop goals and to provide ideas for obtaining those goals, modeling and rewarding good behavior, and reviewing ways to cope with the triggers that lead to drinking. Matching a patient to therapies that address an area where he or she shows the greatest need may prove most effective.”

My experience has been that high functioning and highly educated people are often not good candidates for treatment programs that stress the disease model. These folks seem to respond better to the “harm reduction model.” This approach stresses engagement with substance abusers in designing strategies to reduce the potential harm that may result from their use. As opposed to the disease model, where any use is seen as leading inevitably to loss of control, harm reduction is an empowering approach that teaches people strategies to control how and when they use in order to minimize potential harm.

It must be stressed, however, that this approach is not for people who are truly addicted, i.e., alcohol dependent. For them, abstinence may be the only way, and AA and other 12-step models are probably the most appropriate.

Marshall Scott

As a hospital chaplain who has paid attention to this for some time, my observation is that what we might call combination therapy has a good response rate. That is, inpatient rehab needs ongoing support, and 12-step programs are the resource for many post-rehab, or in conjunction with therapy, for “enhancing social support, working with the patient to develop goals and to provide ideas for obtaining those goals, modeling and rewarding good behavior, and reviewing ways to cope with the triggers that lead to drinking.” On the other hand, 12-step programs can be uncomfortable for folks for whom God, even noted as “God as we understand God,” is a difficult thought.

Ann Fontaine

AA can help people when tempted to take “just one” – but those with addiction issues have to stop whatever it is. A supportive community that does not “push” alcohol and honors those who can’t drink it or partake of other substances is essential.

June Butler

Thanks for your response, Harry. I guess what we know as of now is that one approach does not fit all. My father was an alcoholic who stopped drinking with the help of AA but soon stopped attending meetings and managed to stay sober for 8 years in one period. It was obvious that he needed more help than just not drinking, because he was mean when he was drunk, but he was still mean during the 8 years he was sober.

Susan Brown Snook

Sorry your comment never appeared, June. I checked my comments awaiting approval, and yours isn’t there, so it’s somewhere lost in cyberspace. Good question – I hope someone can answer it.

June Butler

Probably in your spam, Susan. WordPress does that to me. It may be there more than once, but, if you find it, please publish only once.

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